Legacy

11 28 edward hydeToday I want to tell you about Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon who was born on this day in 1661 and grew up in Berkshire, England. As far as I can make out, he’s nothing to do with the Edward Hyde in the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, but he may have had an alter ego. Hyde’s aunt was the Duchess of York, who would one day marry King James II, His cousin would grow up to be Queen Anne. He was pretty well connected. Hyde, then known as Lord Cornbury, was colonial governor of New York between 1702 and 1708 and would become fabled as one of the worst governors of an American colony that the British had ever appointed. He was the sort of person that old aristocratic families are so good at squeezing out, an arrogant idiot. He drank too much, accepted bribes and possibly stole £1,500 pound that was meant for the defence of New York Harbour. But none of these awful things are why I want to talk about him today. As you see from this picture, he’s wearing a frock and I want to tell you about his reputation for going about in women’s clothes.

We are told by his contemporaries that he officiated at the opening of the New York Assembly in 1702 wearing a hooped gown, an elaborate headdress and carried a fan. His attire was very similar to something his cousin, Queen Anne would have chosen. When challenged about his choice of clothing, this was his reply: “You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman (Queen Anne), and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.” We are led to believe that he dressed in women’s clothes frequently and was given to hiding behind trees and then leaping out at people shrieking and laughing, which I find a slightly more worrying pastime than the dressing up. An account from 1901 has him frequently parading up and down Broadway in an elaborate gown with a string of amused children following in his wake. He may even have been arrested by a constable who mistook him for a prostitute. When his wife, Lady Katherine, 8th Baroness of Clifton, died in 1706 he was even said to have attended her funeral in a dress.

His mode of attire was not his only unusual habit. He really liked ears. He may have fallen for his wife because she had nice ears. Once, when expected to make a public speech, he delivered instead a flowery sort of eulogy in praise of the beauty of his wife’s ears. Then afterwards he invited everyone else to feel them for themselves so they would know how shell-like they really were.

There is no indication that Hyde saw himself in any way as a figure of fun. In fact, he liked to be addressed by his preferred title of ‘His High Mightiness’, which probably didn’t help him win many friends either. There were many complaints about his general unsuitability for his post as governor and, in 1708, he was removed from office. His successor, Robert Hunter, arrived in 1710 to find Hyde in debtor’s prison in Manhattan, impoverished, but still wearing a dress. Hunter paid his debts and sent him home to England. There, he was able to take his place in the House of Lords.

The actual evidence that Hyde really dressed in women’s clothes is scant. It comes largely from a few letters written by three men who really hated him. So it’s possible that they were spreading a rumour to discredit him. Even the painting with his name on it may just be an image that has become associated with him. It was first alleged to be a painting of Hyde over seventy years after his death. It was bought by the New York Historical Society in 1952 and arrived with a label that described it as ‘Lord Cornbury, half-witted son of Henry, Lord of Clarendon.

I don’t want to pretend that Hyde was nice or misunderstood, he clearly wasn’t. He’s not a person to hold up as a rôle model or a good example of anything. He was an over-privileged idiot. But he’s been presented as an eccentric idiot and what I like about him is that the tales of his proclivities, designed to discredit him, are the same stories that make him so interesting today. No one would care much about a corrupt seventeenth century governor of New York if we didn’t have a picture of him in a dress. Pretty much his only legacy is this picture that might not be him, doing something that he might never have done. But, judging by what I’ve read of the rest of his life, it’s the best thing about him.

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